Liberal party infighting explodes over Dion's video 'mess'

Botched statement brings divisions between staff, advisers to the forefront

Glen McGregor, The Ottawa Citizen; with files from Canwest News Service  Published: Sunday, December 07, 2008

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NDP leader Jack Layton, right, looks on as Liberal leader Stéphane Dion speaks to supporters during a pro-coalition government rally at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto yesterday.Mike Cassese, ReutersNDP leader Jack Layton, right, looks on as Liberal leader Stéphane Dion speaks to supporters during a pro-coalition government rally at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto yesterday.

Just as his request for retakes in a television interview damaged Stéphane Dion in the last election campaign, his tinkering with the script of his televised address to the nation last week could cost him the leadership of the Liberal-NDP coalition.

The botched videotaped statement that aired Wednesday night is bringing to the surface angry divisions between Mr. Dion's inner circle of advisers and party staff on Parliament Hill, who say they feel they've been made into scapegoats.

"There is only one person to blame for that mess," said one Liberal involved. "It's Dion and Dion only."

The video, shot as a response to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's address to the nation on the political crisis, arrived late at TV networks and appeared out of focus in segments. Many Liberal MPs considered the video an embarrassment that distracted from the party's message at a key time.

It reminded some of Mr. Dion's fateful interview in the closing days of the election, when the CTV network released the clip of Mr. Dion struggling to understand a question in English and asking to redo his response. The Conservative campaign leapt on the video and cited it as evidence of Mr. Dion's unsuitability to lead the country.

Mr. Dion's office has ordered an investigation to find out why the video recording was botched, but the failure of his closest aides to accept responsibility for their role in the fiasco has angered some party staff.

They are upset that Mr. Dion's office has fingered Liberal videographer Mick Gzowski for blame. Mr. Gzowski is the son of the late CBC radio icon, Peter Gzowski. His wife has worked as a language coach for Mr. Dion.

Sources familiar with the taping say that Mr. Dion's office put Mr. Gzowski and others working on the video in an impossible position by failing to begin work on the video until after 6 p.m. on Wednesday, when it was supposed to run on network TV shortly after Mr. Harper's 7 p.m. address.

The video arrived so late at the networks that CTV wasn't able to play it on its main channel.

Mr. Dion's staff had focused that day on writing his letter to the Governor General on behalf of the Liberal-NDP coalition, while letting the recording of the crucial video wait until later in the day, one source said. Worse, said the source, Mr. Dion repeatedly changed the script of the French-language address, causing costly delays and forcing the camera crew to scramble to complete the video. Mr. Gzowski had less than 25 minutes to record the two nine-minute videos, one in each language.

Mr. Dion's office failed to put in place a backup plan, such as a live address, the source said. NDP leader Jack Layton and Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe opted for live appearances rather than pre-recorded statements.

Although one news report yesterday suggested Mr. Dion's office is moving to fire Mr. Gzowski, that scenario is unlikely and the story has only served to further anger party staff on Parliament Hill. Mr. Gzowski works for the Liberal Research Bureau, a parliamentary office that functions independently of Mr. Dion's staff in the Office of the Leader of the Opposition. The bureau remains neutral in leadership races and reports not to the leader, but the head of party's national caucus.

The internal investigation ordered by Mr. Dion's chief of staff, Johanne Senecal, is to be presented to caucus at a meeting Wednesday by Derek Ferguson, Mr. Gzowski's boss. The report is expected to highlight the late start on the video and the fact that Mr. Dion's tinkering caused serious delays. It could be particularly damaging at a time when Mr. Dion's leadership is hanging in the balance.

Michael Gendron, a press secretary to Mr. Dion, said he could not comment.

Mr. Dion faces increasingly vocal criticism of his leadership of the coalition who negotiated with the NDP with a promise of support from the Bloc Québécois. The Globe and Mail published an opinion piece by former Liberal cabinet minister John Manley, who called on the party to replace Mr. Dion with someone who will work on rebuilding the party instead of forming coalition deals.

Mr. Dion says he will step down from his job when a new leader in chosen in May. But with the possibility of an election should opposition parties defeat the Harper government's budget in January, some believe the party needs to put a new leader in place much sooner.

Leadership contender Michael Ignatieff said late last week that discussions about accelerating the leadership process are under way. Yesterday, Bob Rae, another leadership contender, said he would favour accelerating the selection of a new leader, but said that would require a change in the leadership selection process.

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